That’s right. You heard me. I’m not doing it. I, a member of a Modern Orthodox shul, mother of four Jewish kids who keep kosher and observe Shabbat weekly, executive director of an Atlanta Jewish day camp, will not be forcing my kids to attend services on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about since this summer at camp, and something I decided firmly last weekend while attending a Jewish family retreat.
Here’s the thing. My kids love being Jewish. It’s the essence of their being. It’s the foundation of their friendships. It’s the laughter and joy that fills their Saturdays.
And that’s exactly why I am leaving the choice to attend High Holiday services up to them.
I will be attending services with my husband. We will invite them to join us, but we will not force them. We will not drag them to the mall to find the perfect holiday outfit. We will not fight with them on Rosh Hashanah morning because they won’t put on said perfect holiday outfit. We won’t tell them the kids’ program is going to be different this year. (It’s not.) We won’t bargain with them and say they just have to stay for an hour.
Why? Because practicing Judaism is not a punishment; it is a privilege and a gift. It’s also something we have woven so tightly into the fabric of our kids’ lives that staying home rather than going to synagogue for a few hours a year will in no way unravel its positive impact. But forcing an experience might.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t just let my kids out of any activity they are not excited to do. They do their homework. They write thank you notes. They apologize when they do wrong. And they don’t eat pepperoni pizza.
We didn’t always bend the rules. But over the years I have come to feel strongly that there are countless ways to incorporate Judaism into our lives that don’t necessarily involve formal religious institutions.
My kids perform a mitzvah when they donate toys they have outgrown. We talk about God when the sky looks exceptionally beautiful. We discuss the meaning of Jewish rituals when we say the blessings on Shabbat. We reinforce the importance of tradition when we attend a bris, bar mitzvah, wedding, or funeral. They learn Hebrew words, sing Jewish songs, and make Jewish friends when they attend Jewish summer camp. We engrain in them Jewish values like telling the truth, treating others with compassion, and caring for the environment. We teach them about their Jewish ancestors when we tell them stories about their namesakes and when we cure their colds with grandma’s famous matzah ball soup. They see our mezuzahs every time they walk into a room. We impress upon them the struggles of our people when we finally expose them to the horror of the Holocaust. Then we tell them about the resilience of our people when we show them the beauty that is Israel.
My kids love the High Holidays. They are looking forward to dipping apples in honey during the Rosh Hashanah lunch we host with family and friends. My oldest may even try to fast this Yom Kippur. (As he is a 12-year-old boy, this would be impressive on a number of levels!)
Perhaps some of our kids will join us at synagogue this year. But if they don’t, I won’t synagogue-shame them into thinking they aren’t “good Jews” or worry what people might think when we arrive at shul without them.
Instead, my husband and I will enjoy our time at shul while our kids set the table in preparation for our return. OK, so it’s more likely they will make a giant mess in the basement when they build couch forts and engage in an epic sibling LEGO battle, but either way, they will associate the holiday (and Judaism) with family, freedom of choice, and happy memories–which I believe makes it more likely that my grandchildren will love Judaism, too.